When my grandson Zach was a newbie at walking and running, about 15 months old, I watched as he ran across his living room. Scattered around him were toys of all shapes and sizes, a lot of trucks to be sure. He started out running with glee, but then he stumbled and fell forward to the ground, landing on a small block. His mom, Heather, was right there watching him flounder. Of interest, she didn’t go over immediately to comfort and nurture him. Rather, she held back to see how he would handle this unfortunate turn of events. He cried out in dismay, but by Heather waiting a few seconds before rushing in, he got up, happy with himself and continued his awkward gait. I liked that she didn’t step right in to “save” him. Sound cruel? No, she was helping Zach to be resilient as he learned that he could soothe himself and get over this “stumbling block.” She was helping him to be resilient; to solve his own problems.
We’ve all heard the phrase “helicopter parent,” a parent who is too involved in their children’s lives. I want to suggest that another way to parent is to be a terra firma parent. As parents, let’s provide our children with a firm foundation, a springboard if you will. Think of the first time you took your preschooler swimming. You didn’t just toss her into the water. It took many attempts and days of helping your child feel comfortable in the water. You helped give her solid ground (terra firma) for being safe in the water. But then, it was your job to set her free.
Our job as parents is to help our children move away from us. Wow! We love them more than the world and want them to stay with us always. We don’t want any harm to come to them. How do you prepare a child to spring forward with her own life?
First, what not to do: It’s not your job to solve every problem for your child. Give him tools, but send the message that “I know you can do it yourself.” A helicopter metaphor implies that everything is an emergency. Few things in your child’s life require you to swoop in and rescue your child.
The Top Five Tips for becoming a Terra Firma Parent:
- Make sure your child – of any age – is physically ready to handle the upcoming events. Feed your toddler before you take him food shopping. Let your preschooler have a good nap before visiting grandma’s house. This gives him a firm foundation (terra firma) for being on “best behavior.”
- Help your child feel emotionally safe. Be consistent – 100% of the time – with limits you set. Be firm and kind in setting limits. It helps your child feel safe.
- Provide a stimulating environment for your child at home – blocks, plastic letters, lots of paper and markers. Then stand back. Don’t drill your child on sight words. Don’t think it’s your job to teach your child his letters before kindergarten. Relax, have fun, and opportunities for academic growth will emerge naturally. Let him discover for himself.
- Provide structure for your child. A predictable routine will help your child complete homework – but don’t do it for her. Lay clear ground rules for your adolescent when she is going out with friends; then expect she will make good choices.
- Let your child fail. It’s okay to fail; that’s how we learn. You won’t let your child make a choice where his life would be endangered; but other than that, let your child choose how to handle a situation at school. Then talk about it; give him strategies he might use the next time.
Are you picking up a pattern? You are giving her a solid foundation, terra firma, from which to grow on her own. A good mantra is I will let my child do it herself; I will provide the foundation so that she can be successful.
Let me know what you think.
- Elaine Kennedy is Head of School at New Morning School in Plymouth, MI. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org